Apoorv Sinha is the chief executive officer of Carbon Upcycling based in Calgary.
Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’ chief negotiator at the COP21 climate conference in Paris in 2015, has repeatedly warned that the 2020s are the critical decade for dealing with the climate crisis. The planet’s carbon trajectory is being locked in by the policies governments set and the decisions businesses make today.
This is why the United States’ new Inflation Reduction Act is a source of some relief. It rewires the world’s largest economy toward a more sustainable future. In a similar effort, Canada has introduced investment tax credits to spur the private sector into environmental action.
But where Canada and the U.S. both dramatically fall short is addressing the industries that are some of the most notorious polluters: steel, cement, plastics and industrial chemicals. These sectors, known collectively as heavy industry, have also been where innovation has been slowest to yield results.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent greenhouse-gas inventory, the production of chemicals, metals including iron and steel, fertilizers and minerals such as cement accounted for 24 per cent of emissions in the U.S. in 2022. Globally, this percentage rises close to 30 per cent. In Canada, it’s 11 per cent, but this doesn’t take into account the future emissions resulting from processing the massive volumes of raw materials that Canada exports.
The planet urgently needs the wholesale transformation of heavy industry. The industrial sector is the largest end-use sector, both in terms of energy demand and emissions. Yet the International Energy Agency released a report in 2021 that projects that none of the heavy industrial subsectors are on track to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – a benchmark that the United Nations recognizes is necessary “to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a livable planet.”
So, what needs to happen if we’re to make greening heavy industry the next climate goal and set our minds in Canada to tackle some of the world’s toughest decarbonization problems?
First, we need to focus on the biggest sources of industrial emissions, such as blast furnaces, chemical plants and cement kilns. American and Canadian investment tax credits should be enhanced with special incentives that reward projects that green these and other high-emissions facilities.
Second, we need to put carbon reduction efforts, enabled by novel technologies that improve process or material efficiencies, on the same footing as carbon removal.
When it comes to carbon emissions, it turns out that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. As a study in Nature has demonstrated, it’s much more efficient to avoid emissions than to chase and capture them later.
Yet neither the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act nor the Canadian investment tax credits recognize this. They offer no incentive to avoid emissions through process or material improvements, or by swapping in low-emissions materials. In heavy industry, abatement, not removal, is likely our fastest and most effective lever for reducing short-term emissions.
Third, we need to speed things up. Almost by definition, governments and heavy industry move slowly. But time isn’t on our side. Policy and business decisions need to be accelerated so that we can employ new technologies and build the infrastructure that carries us furthest fastest toward net zero. This requires confidence, and even a degree of fearlessness, and visionary leadership.
We need to bring to heavy industry the Silicon Valley mindset and race from concept to pilot to scale. The good news is that there are some exciting innovations. We need to bet big, bet often and create a strong, diversified publicly supported rapid investment framework for promising early-stage concepts.
Demonstration projects – one-off installations that showcase the performance of a new technology on an industrial scale – are no longer enough. Rather than promote early-stage investment into such commercial demonstration projects, the government instead needs to provide scalable financial support to encourage industrywide adoption of these technologies.
We are on the cusp of a major revolution in the production of the literal building blocks of modern civilization: more durable cement that absorbs rather than emits carbon. Then there’s bioneutral plastics that are infinitely recyclable. And zero carbon steel that can be forged with a fraction of the energy of conventional alloys.
If you chase any supply chain, you will ultimately find these component materials – cement, plastics, steel – that make up the infrastructure of the modern world around us.
We need to get the economics and decision-making processes aligned to transform heavy industry and reach our most urgent climate goals. Government policies and investments can help get us there.